Zoning is a set of largely invisible rules and boundaries that profoundly shape the world around us, determining who gets to live where, who gets access to which parks and stores, and—because most student assignment policies across the country are based on a child’s home address—ultimately also affecting who gets access to which schools. Exclusionary zoning practices—such as those that limit the building of duplexes, triplexes, or apartment buildings; require houses to be built on lots of a certain size; or mandate multiple parking spaces per home—keep low-income and working-class people out of certain neighborhoods by making them unaffordable. These laws disproportionately affect people of color, perpetuating the legacy of explicitly racially discriminatory policies of the past, such as redlining for federal home loans and racially restrictive covenants in property deeds.

The Century Foundation (TCF) has spent the past year researching exclusionary zoning and the ways in which it limits educational opportunity in communities across New York State. TCF has produced case studies focused on the problem (comparing pairs of communities in Queens, Long Island, Westchester, and Buffalo), as well as offered promising examples of reform, highlighting successful policy changes in California, Minneapolis, Oregon, and Charlotte. But data and evidence alone are not enough to win the policy fight for better housing policies to support more inclusive communities, in New York and beyond. Messaging and effective communication is also key.

To that end, TCF partnered with Karp Strategies, an urban planning strategy and consulting firm, to conduct research on how the public responds to language around zoning, zoning reform, housing equity, and its impact on K–12 education, and what messaging would be successful in persuading decisionmakers and voters to reform damaging and exclusionary zoning practices. The research included roughly a dozen interviews with stakeholders and over 150 survey responses from New Yorkers across four different geographic regions (Queens, Long Island, Westchester, and Buffalo).

Here are five key takeaways from that research:

1. Fears about overcrowding schools fuel opposition to reforming housing policies. Flip the story to embrace growth.

In the interviews and survey data, there was a widespread belief that allowing different types of multi-family homes would lead to an increase in families and overcrowding in schools. These fears were also tied up with bias and stereotypes about class, race, and immigration status, with many people assuming that new students would have a negative effect on the local public schools. (More information on how the links between education and housing shape people’s views on this issue can be found here.)

Untangling these views and biases can be tricky, but to begin with, evidence shows that, in many cases, schools are not actually overcrowded. In fact, many districts nationwide—including many wealthier areas with single-family homes, such as Scarsdale, New York—have experienced declining school enrollment. It can help to share this fact, and make the point that many schools have sufficient space to serve new students. More broadly, it helps to shift the narrative to focus on the benefits of growth for creating thriving schools, to paint a picture of a school system that with growing student populations sees expanded resources and increased learning opportunities.

2. Emphasizing the benefits to students and families is more convincing than a social justice–centered argument.

TCF’s research on exclusionary zoning and educational opportunity is rooted in a social justice argument that all students deserve a quality education and that current housing policies are unfairly excluding low-income students and students of color from some of the highest-opportunity schools. While the research showed this was a motivating factor for housing reform advocates and some community leaders, it was not as effective messaging when talking with the general public about this issue. (This echoes findings of another TCF messaging research project on school integration, which found that highlighting the direct benefits for students was more effective than starting with a social justice argument.)

People were more open to new housing policies when they were informed how these changes might positively affect their own lives. For example, effective messaging includes statements such as:

  • Greater racial and cultural diversity in your schools will equip your children with the types of skills and perspectives that colleges and employers are increasingly looking for….
  • Your young adult children might be better able to afford this neighborhood….
  • Your retired parents could more affordably live close to you….

3. Use positive framing.

Most policymakers and journalists talk about housing reform in terms of getting rid of harmful zoning laws. TCF research found that it was much more effective to frame the issue positively and talk about what types of housing will be allowed by changing zoning laws.

For example, single-family zoning is one of the most ubiquitous exclusionary zoning policies. Eliminating single-family zoning is therefore a means of increasing affordability and the opportunity for integrated neighborhoods. But saying phrases such as “banning single-family zoning” is poor messaging—it sounds at first like banning families or home ownership, or somehow being against the American dream.

Instead, communications should focus on legalizing different types of multi-family homes—such as duplexes, garden apartments, and small apartment buildings. In their messaging research on housing reform in Oregon, Sightline Institute described it this way:

Almost no one thinks “single-family zoning” is outrageous, despite all the ways it harms us: It limits housing choices, elevates prices, segregates cities. But when you tell people that duplexes are illegal to build in most of the United States and Canada, most people do actually find that outrageous. You’re saying the same thing, but the emphasis is on what we stand to gain.

4. Make it concrete.

In general, people do not have a blanket opposition to constructing more affordable homes. Even residents of wealthy neighborhoods may be open to adding new housing if they feel like the design of new construction is of high-quality and the quantity is reasonably limited. And so it helps to talk in concrete terms about the new types of housing that are possible when zoning laws are changed. In the communities TCF researched across New York State, this typically meant duplexes, townhouses, basement apartments, backyard cottages, or small apartment buildings. Pictures of proposed housing types can also help make the changes concrete and address questions about maintaining the look and feel of a neighborhood. Without this clarity, opponents of changing housing laws can too easily stir up fears of high-rise apartment buildings that might not reflect the reality of the proposed changes.

5. Avoid jargon.

Here’s a challenge: have a conversation about zoning without ever using the word zoning. Terms like zoning, units, workforce housing, affordable housing, and density can be confusing and uninspiring, and they can mean different things to different people. Talking about allowing apartments, duplexes, or homes in all shapes and sizes—alongside single-family homes—makes the conversation clearer.

Looking Ahead

Above all, housing reform advocates should aim to reassure people who may be fearful that, despite at times legitimate concerns about school overcrowding or the aesthetics of a neighborhood changing, allowing more housing into a community benefits everyone. Emphasize that when done carefully and with community members involved in the process, zoning reform can bring greater affordability to the neighborhood as a whole, more resources to the school system and community spaces, and prepare future generations for a world that is increasingly diverse.